Defense

Trump picks acting Pentagon chief and former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan to become next secretary of Defense

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump plans to nominate acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to formally take over the top spot at the Pentagon, the president's spokeswoman said Thursday.
  • Shanahan, a former longtime executive at the aerospace giant Boeing, needs Senate confirmation for the post most recently held by James Mattis.
  • "Acting Secretary Shanahan has proven over the last several months that he is beyond qualified to lead the Department of Defense, and he will continue to do an excellent job," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote on Twitter.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan hosts an honor cordon for Bosnia and Herzegovina's Minister of Defense Marina Pendes at the Pentagon on Sept. 12, 2017.
Department of Defense photo

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump plans to nominate acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to formally take over the top spot at the Pentagon, the president's spokeswoman said Thursday.

Shanahan, a former longtime executive at aerospace giant Boeing, needs Senate confirmation for the post most recently held by James Mattis.

"Based upon his outstanding service to the Country and his demonstrated ability, President Trump intends to nominated Patrick M. Shanahan to be the Secretary of Defense," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote in a tweet.

"Acting Secretary Shanahan has proven over the last several months that he is beyond qualified to lead the Department of Defense, and he will continue to do an excellent job," Sanders wrote.

President Donald Trump listens next to Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan during a Cabinet meeting on day 12 of the partial U.S. government shutdown at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 2, 2019.
Jim Young | Reuters

Shanahan, 56, had no prior experience either in the military or in foreign policy before he became the deputy Defense secretary in 2017.

"I am honored by today's announcement of President Trump's intent to nominate," he said in a prepared statement. "If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue the aggressive implementation of our National Defense Strategy."

"I remain committed to modernizing the force so our remarkable Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have everything they need to keep our military lethal and our country safe."

In the wake of the announcement, Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon that he learned of Trump's intent to nominate him Thursday afternoon at the White House.

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"The biggest challenge is going to be balancing it all," Shanahan told reporters. "I'd say, for me, it's about practicing selectful neglect so that we can stay focused on the future but not ignore a lot of the emerging really important issues that pop day to day that you don't plan for."

Shanahan's views on America's role in the world have been shaped by decades in the private sector.

Before coming to the Pentagon, Shanahan spent just over 30 years at Boeing, where he oversaw the management of profit and loss for the 737, 747, 767, 777 and 787 programs. In 2017, he left the company to become the 33rd deputy secretary of Defense, a role that oversees the Pentagon's colossal $700 billion budget.

The nomination follows the end of a monthlong ethics investigation into Shanahan, conducted by the Defense Department's inspector general. The IG's office examined whether Shanahan had taken any actions in his official capacity to benefit Boeing, and it ultimately determined that he had not.

Shanahan ascended to the acting role in the wake of Mattis' shocking resignation in December.

James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense, right, and Patrick Shanahan, Deputy Secretary of Defense, wait outside the Pentagon before an event in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg via Getty Images

In his resignation letter, Mattis said that disagreements with the president about America's treatment of both allies and strategic competitors came from beliefs that "are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues."

Mattis, a revered Marine with a military career spanning four decades, was known for his battlefield prowess and kinship with rank-and-file service members. Before he became Trump's Defense secretary, the four-star general led the U.S. Central Command, the combatant command responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In contrast, Shanahan, if confirmed by the Senate, may head the largest federal agency with limited experience in defense and foreign policy.

However, he is by no means the first Trump appointee to take his cues from the business world and apply them to foreign policy.

Trump himself lacked experience in government, and campaigned on running Washington based on the lessons he learned leading the Trump Organization and promoted as a reality show host on "The Apprentice."

Trump's first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, entered the public sector after serving as CEO of Exxon Mobil. But despite Tillerson's efforts to streamline the State Department, Trump pushed him out and would later say he was "dumb as a rock and I couldn't get rid of him fast enough."

And yet, Shanahan's entrance into the Pentagon comes at a particularly tumultuous time.

The unpredictable Trump administration has pulled the United States back from global commitments and pushed forward on ambitious projects like the denuclearization of North Korea, a U.S. troop drawdown in the Middle East, a growing military footprint on the southwest border with Mexico and heightened tensions with Iran and Venezuela.

— CNBC's Dan Mangan contributed to this report.